Regarding the politics of Sabbath . . .

The Universal Story: Genesis 1–11 (26–27)

“Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath stems from creation, which means that it’s for us, our animals, and our servants. In other words, he reminds the leaders of how the Sabbath structures our lives, but also breathes life into our social and political structures. Failure to see both sides of Sabbath ends in misunderstanding. . . . The fact that Sabbath is a practice rooted in creation—practiced by God Himself!—offers a basis for the prophets’ chastisement of Israel when she cheats the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:19; Isaiah 56:6; Jeremiah 17:27). Hence, prophets judge Israel by her reverence for the Sabbath, which also promotes justice (cf. Isaiah 56:2; Jeremiah 17:21–27).”

The Postpartum Transformation

If there’s ever an appropriate time to curse, it’s in the moment captured in the opening scene of the television show Up All Night. As two new parents gawk and hover over their first-born in her crib, they cannot help but to use expletives to express their awe: “She’s so ####-ing beautiful.” Mom and Dad chastise each other for cussing in front of their infant, but viewers can appreciate the sentiment—the genuine display of profound awe at one’s offspring ex utero; those who have experienced it understand that inexplicable sense of reverence.

When we have children—especially the first one—we are forced to soberly face a duality which we cannot reconcile: awe and horror. New parents can only ogle, awed at the phenomenon and beauty of new life, while at the same time also feeling the burning dread at the implications of being manifestly responsible for that young life.

As has been noted elsewhereUp All Night is one of several new shows spawned by Hannah Rosin’s article in The Atlantic, “The End of Men.” Rosin summarizes the trend in television sitcoms this way: “They all feature men who are unemployed or underemployed, love to play video games, and are desperately in need of a makeover.” Yet, for all this talk of the new breed of men qua juvenile wimps, which is certainly a source of minor comedy in Up All Night, it’s not what the writers attend to in the show’s narratives.

The parental roles played by Arnett and Applegate are sufficiently robust, but both actors derive their fame from inimitable, thin characters at whom we loved to sneer. If you are a Gen Xer or older, you’re probably a bit dazzled by the casting: who would have predicted that Will Arnett could break out of his magical characterization of G.O.B. (that is, George Oscar Bluth from Arrested Development) into a more nuanced role of a stay-at-home dad. And Christina Applegate liberates her persona, which has (arguably) been held hostage by the promiscuous and universally indiscriminate Kelly Bundy from Married With Children, by portraying a working mother in a functional family unit with whom viewers might actually empathize.

The show centres on the interplay between the parents: a stay-at-home dad (Arnett), who gives up his job at a law firm to be home with their daughter so that his wife (Applegate) can work. The story lines slump when the writers try to innovate (or enervate) a swapped-out version of the “traditional roles” where comedy is meant to ensue. For instance, the domestic dad gets upset when his wife works late or under-appreciates the romantic dinner he has made. While the occasional traditional role-swap scenes are often contrived, the cleverness of Up All Night is in the raw display of parental floundering, in moments of domestic chaos that are familiar to all parents, grandparents, and babysitters.

Up All Night effectively sketches out the liminal boundary of becoming a parent: stepping out of one well-worn and self-fashioned identity into a murky and chaotic morass of stress, screams, tenderness, feces, and so on. It’s not even an identity at first—just a wall of chaos. Most of us had that feeling when we took our first-born home from the hospital (or brought our adopted child home for the first time). We remember the thoughts that passed through our minds:

What are we supposed to do with this baby?
Shouldn’t there be some kind of an expert coming home with us?
I still cannot figure out how to change that thing’s diaper, and they’re just going to let me leave with it?

Those postpartum days are filled with a mixture of our awe at this new little life and our profound horror at our perceived inability to parent. This perception stems from reality: We cannot contrive a meaningful parenting solution to the myriad and erupting situations in our house. This devolution—from our ideal (read: naïvely Platonic) notion of parenting to the reality of our failure to “solve”—systematically disentangles the egoistic structuring of our lives up to that point. (As an aside: The labor and delivery episode brilliantly demonstrated the systematic denigration of dignity that new mothers experience. It was also the most realistic portrayal of a childbirth on fictional television that I have seen. The writers dragged viewers slowly through the crossing of that liminal boundary, from an overly modest young professional to a mom.)

Up All Night succeeds when it plays out this storyline, when we see these new parents struggling to realize who they really are now that his law practice and her management career no longer form a sufficient basis for their identities. The show does not concentrate on the characters’ careers as the core of their identities, but the writers do effectively hone in on the other half of the parenting transformation: accepting the ambiguity of what I term “parental chaos”—the foisting of an otherwise inconceivable situation upon new parents, which they must resolve. For instance, one might not have yet imagined a scenario where a human being had defecated, retrieved the feces, and then shoved it up their nose and rubbed it in their hair (or their sibling’s hair!). I don’t have to use my imagination here, only my memory. These moments of chaos press parents into action—and that pressure to act and the ensuing response become part of the new identification as “Mom” or “Dad,” an identification that is not predicated upon false notions of self or constructed upon carefully polished delusions of grandeur. In fact, it’s the opposite.

The relentless intrusion of children into our management schemes (impression management, schedule management, rest management, and so on) offer moms and dads an opportunity to be free from false notions of self, careerism, and the most permissible sins (perfectionism). Some have even argued that this is exactly what Jesus was doing with his own disciples, systematically stripping them of false notions of self and messianic romanticisms so that they could be free to be the fallible and responsible apostles that Jesus would then send out. (Hans Bayer explores this premise in detail in his forthcoming title, Following Mark’s Call: Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark.) Up All Nightlets its viewers rest in the malaise of chaos, struggle, defeat, and repair without making us feel that success is necessarily measurable in anything other than a commitment to genuine and accountable love between parents, their children, and their wider community.

A similarly relentless intrusion happens in marriage (if not every human relationship). For instance, I did not have an appreciable grasp of what a dreadful sinner I was until I married. In marriage, I finally saw my sin reflected directly back to me in a 24-hour-a-day relationship where I was not allowed to retreat or manage the situation according to my ego. Likewise, I did not understand the communicable quality of sin—that the sins of the father pass to the children—until we brought our children into the house. There is nothing more painfully sobering than to watch my own patterns of sin spin and tangle into my children’s little bodies and hearts.

The crises created by these relentless intrusions and realizations are funded by that irresolvable duality: Our babies are beautiful, ####-ing beautiful at that, but we parents are not. We are cracked, split, and perforated by decades of experience. We parents often attempt to reconcile this duality of parenting, the awe and horror, by naïvely maintaining a perfect environment around our children. For multitudinous reasons (but most likely because of behaviourism), we try to be the parent that we believe we must be. But for most of us, that attempt at faux perfection usually collapses, which spins out cycles of regret and ends with us wresting control of anything that we can seize. We become weird doters who want to make everything perfect: perfect appearance (infant-sized North Face jackets, $100 shoes for babies who cannot even walk), perfect nutrition, perfect schooling, and so on. But it’s clear to those who have worn out this path that the solution might be found in being anti-dote: breaking the faux-perfect illusion.

Refreshingly, Up All Night subtly mocks these attempts to react to domestic chaos with the appearance of control. Despite the characters’ attempts to maintain a veneer of faultless parenting, the show instead depicts a fallible yet loving home life. Up All Night is at its best when it is focused on this postpartum transformation: from our carefully cultivated identities before children to the reality that we are actually just managing intrusive chaos. The transformation is complete when our true identity cannot hide behind our cultivated image anymore. It might even be the case that this transformation is God-sent, if we allow it to be; God wrests us, the real us, from our false notion of us. We are moms and dads, which means that our work-filled laptops, our ego-nuanced Facebook pages, our leather couches, our pretentious cars, and our pristine carpets are all things upon which our beautiful children will pee.

And that is okay.

(This essay first appeared in Comment Magazine)

The Ritualization of Unintelligible Sex

Are we evading sin through a story that claims our sexual lives are redeemed through marriage? Am I, as a monogamous heterosexual (I’m using all these terms in their most naïve form) married man, sequestering sin from my sexuality? Geoffrey Rees counts sex as an integral part of the proliferation of sin into humanity (à la Augustine) and wants us to consider how Western Christianized culture has ameliorated sin through the fiction of sex.

Unintelligible Due to Romance and Fiction

In this rich and often dense text, Rees’s thesis plumbs our fictions about sex. He claims throughout that these fictions move sex from the dense nexus of its biological, social, and existential components to a comprehensible goal of marriage. This problematic story does not, however, square with the fact that, “no such thing as a stable sovereign center exists that fixes the intelligibility of the social order sustaining theological discourse on sexuality.”[1] What is sex? “Sex is not something people do, nor is it something people are. It is something that people become, a possibility of intelligible personal identity with a history.”[2] The claim seems to be that finding a coherent “I” in my “I-Thou” relation is so compelling that I am willing to do violence to my body while subject to theological fictions in order to locate the “I” that is a unified me. Sex becomes the unifying feature that redeems me, but at the cost of maintaining a romantic view of marriage. Thus, my epistemic restlessness—my need to understand the complex of sex—finds its rest in this romantic fiction of marriage. Rees’s precise words are worth reading:

When marriage becomes idealized as a means of recovery of the unity of self lost in original sin … marriage becomes a principal means of refusal of responsibility of sin, the disavowal of the loss of unity of self in God through sin … The hold of marriage on theological discourse on sexuality is its illusory promise of solution to the melancholy of original sin through the realization of the fiction of sex.[3]

Rees offers us an incisive analysis on the role of sex in relation to self, spouse, society, and God. Tailoring Augustine’s account of sin to dovetail with Foucault’s dictum, “sex is worth dying for,” he offers fresh vistas to the well-worn discussions of sexuality and gender. Rees insists that no body—individual or social—leaves the room unstained by the profundity of sin, which allows him to then “humorously” explore the problem that we do not actually understand the complex of identities, bodies, relationships, and more that constitute sex. This makes our efforts to hew out a specific narrative for sex—namely, heterosexual marriage—untenable in making it intelligible. Rees argues against several fictions that have been romanticized: the innocence of children, the completion of sexuality in marriage, and the hetero-homosexual dichotomy. If there is no actual hetero-homo dichotomy within which one can situate her own sex, and marriage does not resolve the dilemma, then sex remains unintelligible.

Rees employs two main interlocutors to explore the unintelligibility of sex. The first is Foucault, focused through the lens of his statement “sex is worth dying for.”

And the other is Augustine’s theological goose-chase for the self through concrete embodied experience. I must admit at the outset that I am a neophyte concerning Foucault’s analysis of sex—a seminal subtext to Rees’s thesis. I am hopeful that our panelists will better exegete his use of Foucault in toto.

Rees also draws upon Augustine’s reflections on the body to show that the child’s common question, “Where did I come from,” arrests a concrete attempt to understand the self as a mysterious product of sex. This attempt then creates an analog for one to understand the mystery of creation writ large—an unseen genesis of the universe that we become cognizant of as is:

The point of sex, its power as a fiction, is the fictive unity it promises. Given the overwhelming force of the desire of self for unity, it is not surprising that sex has been unquestioningly assumed as a causal origin of personal identity, as a causal origin of the self who can experience unity through union with another.[4]

Additionally, marriage offers a powerful fiction that alleviates the unintelligibility of sex. (Though, for those of us who have experienced marriage, that alleviation only provides a thin veneer of intelligibility. The quest to find a unified self through marriage easily wrecks the fiction of sex by sober reality.) On multiple fronts, the cultural messages that play upon and extend the fiction of sex do nothing to make sex or marriage more comprehensible. In relation to God, our desire for unity is then corrupted into accepting these fictions of sex and thus, we actually “disavow God” by theologically excising sin from a sexually-redeemed marriage. This move, the sequestering of sin from sex, produces subtle violence that we even perpetrate on children.

For Rees, the violence of this fiction comes from the hetero-homo dichotomy, especially when we attempt to secure our identity on one side of the dichotomy by making childrens’ bodies innocent, segregated from the narratives of our society’s sexual partisans. “The result is a fantastic innocence ascribed to children, most often figured as diminutive play of adult sexed identity fetishized almost under the rubric of cuteness.”[5] The suggested antidote is caught by Augustine’s dictum: “So tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Greater caring for children is therefore enhanced when they are recognized as the entirely sinful creatures that they are, as fully belonging to the community of fallen humanity. The violence of the sentimental spectacle of childhood is especially harmful in its capacity for erasure, its capacity to render invisible and inadmissible the ambiguity and complexity of children’s bodies.[6]

Ritualizing Sex

Catherine Bell’s brilliant tome Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice tackles a spurious dichotomy of a different sort that appears similar to Rees’s critique.[7] Namely, she sought to oust the fiction that because humans are primarily thinkers, our actions directly reflect our thoughts. Instead of this thinking-acting dichotomy, Bell offered ritualization as a better paradigm for understanding human practices. Ritualization means that rites are strategically utilized human practices meant to form our bodies (think Merleau-Ponty’s “habit-body”) and create a new type of person within the social body of the ritual. For instance, John’s baptism in the Gospels is not like other Jewish baptisms (e.g., mikvah baptism) and not like the normal human practice of bathing. It has been strategically changed in order to shape the participants into people who understand their sin differently in light of the ritual. Hence, John ritualizes both normal bathing and Jewish baptism into a new rite.

Bell highlights the fact that our bodies are formed through scripted practices—what Rees might call “fictions”—of all sorts and this formation informs our epistemic perspective. In other words, rituals do not outwardly reflect our internal thinking; they craft our thinking. It seems to me that Rees’s critique aims at something similar: the ritualization of sex. Sex is not a byproduct of our thoughts about sex and the world, it is the biologically scripted practice that shapes how we see ourselves, and hence creation.

I am not certain that Rees would agree with me here, but it might be that the very practice of sex—the very desire to do it—inescapably generates a perspective of my self. Regardless of that complex of sexuality, cultures always ritualize sex, which crafts how we think through our sexual desires and practices. In the same way that Bell argues that we are ritualed beings by constitution, not beings who merely choose to follow rituals, we are sexed beings. This reality of our being qua sexual burgeons from childhood in ever-unfolding and perplexing instances, entangled in and confused by our cultural fictions of what sex is for. These stories help us to situate ourselves as sexual beings and also prescribe for us how to enact the practice, ritualizing it beyond the brute experience of pleasure, procreation, or something else. We ritualize the practice of sex to make its meaning transcend the practice itself, its cultural taboo, and the confusion of its purposes and ends.

However, by admitting that we ritualize the complex of sex, we are not presuming that the reasons for ritualizing sex are clear to us. We could easily fall into a presumption found widely in ritual theory that when a normal human practice is ritualized, it acts as a solution to a particular cultural problem.

We can find a renowned version of this conflict-resolution approach in René Girard’s theory regarding cultural scapegoats.[8] For Girard, a cultural conflict such as violence must be remediated by funneling the violence onto a victim. Every culture, says Girard, contains a ritualized outlet of violence and the resolution most often entails a central figure that is sacrificed by means of channeling their violent impulses. This focused violence sanctions the conflict, but alleviates the need to commit more mundane acts of brutality. Biblical examples of this trajectory range from John the Baptist’s beheading to the thousands of swine driven of the cliff at Gerasa, not to mention the scapegoat of Yom Kippur or Jesus of Nazareth. Although much of Girard’s work appears promising and on many fronts, critique has focused on his presumption that violence is a conflict that has a ritualized resolution.

To understand a ritual, Girard’s methodology requires one to look for a conflict that the ritual is meant to resolve. In the case of sex and its rites, the conflict created by its incomprehensibility resolves through a marriage that removes sexuality from the hetero-homo binary, placing the married couple squarely in the heterosexual camp. Even more theologically dangerous, this ritualization of sex in marriage removes the sex complex from the traditional discourse of sin. Sex has been redeemed, strategically employed apart from sin.

On the whole, I found much of Rees dense text very helpful for articulating my own sensibilities. As I struggled to figure out what he was getting at, he forced me to think again about almost everything sex does and gave me new theological tools to wrest this conversation from the elementary categories like sexual orientation and same-sex attraction. However, it is not clear to me that Rees escapes this same critique of Girard. In fact, his analysis might project a conflict-resolution pattern into the discourse that neglects how the biblical authors might be ritualizing sex (more below).

Though I do believe that I understand what he means by the “incomprehensibility of sex,” I also know that my LGBTQ friends might have a different sense of the construct than do I, maybe even a richer sense. His use of Augustine helps to root the notion in something more tangible, but the notion never quite crystalizes and I suspect that reinforces the idea. On the other end, I often teach undergraduates that heterosexual marriage is just as “stained by sin” as is any other sex. In some way, I would suggest that we are all ritualizing sex—producing some conflict and set of rites that mean to resolve the conflict and offer something to transcend sex. We are all trying to get beyond sex and so we give it some purpose, a proper context, and prescribe rites and taboos to follow.

Slightly jarring for a theological account is the secondary role of Scripture in Rees’s understanding. Biblical authors were also ritualizing sex, prescribing the rites, conflicts, and roles to the human body within the social body of Israel. In the end, Rees offers radical hospitality (i.e., “queer hospitality”) as demanded by Torah in order to make sex intelligible, both within and without marriage. I think that he is largely correct there. Hospitality notwithstanding, I wished that he would have pressed on to consider the Torah’s ritualization of the sex complex on the whole.

For instance, procreation is central in the depiction of sex, but even procreation is not a patently good commodity in the Torah’s ethical economy. As it turns out, Israelites will later procreate for the purpose of making children who can be murdered in sacrifice to other gods (e.g., 2 Kgs 16:3). It is not sufficient to espouse that the purpose of sex is to merely be fruitful and multiply. Moreover, the times (Lev 18:19), relations (Lev 18:1–18), and procreative body fluids (Lev 15) of sex practices are all ritualized in the Torah with Genesis 2:18–25 acting as the foundational story which circumscribes all sex. I agree with Rees that “sodomy,” biblically understood, should mean something more like “egregious inhospitality.” Hospitality itself is also ritualized in Leviticus (see especially Lev 19:9–34). However, we cannot overlook the willingness to violently rape any human regardless of relation, fluid, or biology as equally egregious under an emic reading of Torah. These ritualizations of human practices seem to have something to say about the logic, and therefore intelligibility of sex too.

Conclusions

Rees thesis offers us generous portion of much needed critical discourse on the irascible categories that fly under the flag of human sexuality. Even now, I am guilty of falling back into that lingo which creates the fiction Rees so aptly critiques. The unintelligibility of sex does appear to me as the center of his thesis—the epistemological crux at the center of this text. As well, I am sure that many scholars will find in Rees a harmonic voice who never tires of warning about the power of fictions and romanticisms that too-easily reconcile the murky swamps of life as it is lived.

I do worry that in following Rees’s argument, I could have substituted one fiction for another. But that kind of disparaging is too easy and wide-ranging—and could become a boomerang to my own work. More precisely, I worry that one fiction could be replaced without considering the “fictions” prescribed by the biblical authors. If they were ritualizing the cosmos for Israel, from which Christianity funds its ritualizations, then the question of their authority to situate sex among things such as hospitality needs to be meted out.

[1] Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 37.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 34–35.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[8] René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

(This reponse to Rees’s book The Romance of Innocent Sexuality originally appeared in syndicate.network)

Down Here on Earth—Traversing

(This essay is a response to Robin Parry’s book The Biblical Cosmos and originally appeared on syndicate.network)

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In Jerusalem, when you look across the Ophel (that slope going up to the Temple Mount) toward the Mount of Olives, you cannot see what is behind it. The Mount of Olives confronts you as this intimidating hill to the east, now stippled all over with the stone tombs of the righteous. How can one know the shape of the Levant, the plunging valley that leads to the Salt Sea, the lush agrarian valleys of the Jordan and Jezreel, or the hill country that slowly flattens into the Negev desert? Google Earth® gives us the quickest access to such information. But I wasn’t asking about information. I asked, “How can one know?”

The ancients and moderns—until very recently—had no God’s-eye view of this land. They knew it the same way that I knew my childhood neighborhood: by traversing it. Difficult to imagine, the terrain east of the Mount of Olives descends precipitously over one thousand meters, morphing from semi-arid into raw desert. Though roughly at the same latitude, no one would quibble if I said, “I went up from Jericho to Jerusalem.” That is, no one would quibble who has traversed it.

I have lived briefly in Israel and I regularly travel there. When teaching undergraduates about the Hebrew Bible, I cannot help but notice that in their embodied imaginations and theology, they naturally want to take a God’s-eye view of Scripture. Topographical and theological maps are helpful. I even require students to memorize and recite maps. However, I find myself saying, “If we were there right now, I would point over to X and you would see Y and then this would make much more sense.”

The fact that Jerusalem is within eyeshot of Bethlehem brings us out of abstract spaces and concepts into the world of attestation from the ground up. The grounded fact that Joshua’s military advance was in direct line of sight to the people of Jericho certainly should inform our reading of Rahab’s words, “The fear of you all has fallen upon us and all those who dwell in the land melt away before you” (Josh 2:9). Even the remoteness and remarkable daintiness of the hamlet of Nazareth in the days of Jesus bleeds hues into the watercolor of our understanding about the conflict he encounters on his way to Jerusalem.

All of this is to say that the biblical literature works from the ground up. Literally and literarily, our prime ancestor is given the title “Dirtling” (adam) because he was taken from the dirt (admah). The radical promise of land from YHWH to Abram (Gen 15:7–21) is so specious that he doubts YHWH’s veracity or intentions saying, “How can I know that I shall possess it?” After all, it was a land equivalent to the Fertile Crescent, or what Abram would have called “the known world.” In the background of this weird cultic oath is the fact that Abram has personally traversed the entirety of that land promised to him, from Ur to Haran through Canaan and down into Egypt. He has walked from the Euphrates to the Nile (Gen 15:18) and he knows it!

From the perspective of Scripture itself, seeking to “know what God knows” may estrange us from God’s plan of revelation through the cosmos. Instead, we get biblical stories concerned mostly with “seeing what the prophets are trying to show us.” In that spirit, Parry is our prophet, dragging us down to the ground, pointing at the heavens shoulder to shoulder with the ancient Israelite, and asking us to imagine a world where we do not know what is over that mountain until we traverse it.

I have two basic concerns that I will cover in four points below. My two unresolved areas of concern are probably more my problem than Parry’s burden, but those concerns are representative for what I regularly hear from Christians when first encountering the ancient Near East parallels and cosmic leanings of Israel. The first concern regards the ontological nature of the Hebrew cosmos and God’s relationship to it. Specifically, how direct is God’s plan for creation when it comes to communicating to Israel? Is the cosmos just the material that God is stuck working with, or is it specifically orchestrated by the Creator? And, how can either view be justified by the biblical literature? Second, what did the Israelites think of their own cosmography? Much like we think of scientific theory in the throws of revolutionary science today, did ancient Semites think of their cosmography as a tentative understanding (á la Thomas Kuhn)? In other words, how seriously did they take their own view?

Though important to begin the task, Parry does not want us to stay down merely at the ground level and cosmopolitan perspectives of the universe.

I propose that this biblical view was not merely a phenomenological perspective on how things appear from our location on the surface of the earth; it was also a means of divine communication. (197)

This raises, for me, the question of God and the cosmos—whether God is revealing through the world as he found it or founded a world in order to communicate with humanity. If the cosmos is accidental and God is just excellent at accommodating his plans to its shape and structure (i.e., accidental accommodation), then that would be at odds with a final view of Israelite cosmography (i.e., that they viewed their own cosmography as definitive or final). Or, if Israel’s cosmography is final (i.e., final cosmography) and God’s creation is exactly as he intends it for his ends (i.e., created accommodation)—including how he uses creation to establish the concepts necessary for apt theology—then the final cosmography would be out of sorts with our understanding of the universe, an understanding that has modified appreciably over the millennia. Some combination of God’s use of creation and Hebrew cosmography must jive better than others.[1] It is unclear to me, though I have intuitions which are hinted at in The Biblical Cosmos, which arrangement Parry would find most acceptable. It may be that some other arrangement better captures his understanding, and I would be appreciative to hear it.

The World as It Was Found or the World God Founded?

First, Parry fleshes out some epistemological claims than don’t usually occur in an introduction into ancient cosmology. In essence, he advocates at points for thinking about theology from the ground up, from their perspective. That is not a bad thing! Indeed, I am praising him for this. In light of the disclosure above, it should be obvious that I was impressed with what Parry does in the short space of two hundred pages.

By ground-up theology, I mean that he begins with earth-bound thinking and how it lands diverse cultures in similar cultic practices and ideas. In the chapter “A Land Down Under,” Parry helps us to understand the depth of Sheol, quite physically; our death puts us at greater material distance from the realm of YHWH in the heavens. In “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” the idea of a mountain being the one natural place that brings us closer to the heavens explains why nations in flat terrain (e.g., Mesopotamia and Egypt) built mountain-shaped structures (e.g., ziggurats and pyramids) and those in mountainous regions (e.g., Canaan and Israel) do not need to build (e.g., high places and the temple). The physicality, the groundedness, of the biblical authors creates a theological purview that must engage the world around it.

This approach values the life and perspective of ancient Israelites and their various cults and cultures through the centuries and in situ as fundamental for understanding the themes pervasive in the canon. The earth and life on the face of it creates the categories through which Israel theologizes. But this supposition generates questions about the nexus of creation and history that I want to probe more below. For instance, does God create rivers with an additional metaphorical feature for use in the psalms and eschatological literature? Or, does our encounter with rivers provide the construct that God can use analogically to reason with us (e.g., Psalm 1)? More broadly, is creation a classroom set up by God (created accommodation), or, is creation where we happen to be and through it, God can sufficiently convey meaning (accidental accommodation)? As Karl Barth famously said (for a different reason), “God may speak to us through Russian communism or a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub or a dead dog.”[2] He goes on to say that just because God can communicate through such events, it does not require us to take such communiqués as authoritative for our proclamation of reality.

And so, creation would have to be of a certain kind in a particular order to fulfill the ways in which the biblical authors use it to convey prophetic proclamation. Otherwise, God may be merely clever with his use of the natural world as an accident of creation to speak to humanity through Israel. If God is in the business of this kind of extreme accommodation in his revelation, which entails an accidental view of creation, why should we treat any of it as anything worth proclaiming more than a dead dog? Parry begins an answer in part 4, but I believe he stops short. What I intend to probe below would most likely require its own section in the book.

Second, now that we are down here looking at things from the ground level, what are we to make of the relationship between the cosmos as created and the cosmos as it appeared to ancient Hebrews? Two parallel examples are worth considering here: natural language and the uniqueness of biblical ethics.

Is Hebrew the language of YHWH or is it the natural language of Israel and therefore YHWH speaks Hebrew in order to speak to Israel? Of course, Islam has taken a definitive stance on this. Allah speaks Arabic and thus the true Qur’an can only be written in the holy language of Allah. Is all of creation to be viewed similarly, like a natural language from below? The implications for natural theology, or a theology of revelation writ large, stem directly from the answers to questions like these.

I am inclined to think that the use of trees in Eden, bows in the flood account, livestock for sacrifice, mountains for worship, and a human as the final sacrifice are not mere accommodations to our ground-eye view of the world. In the case of creation and cultic ceremonies, the connection between the historical act and the use of created items doesn’t appear arbitrary. Unlike our rituals today, biblical covenant ceremonies did not have arbitrary symbols. The bow set in the sky directly related to both the waters of the flood and the violence of a weapon used by YHWH to cleanse the earth. The irony of the temple being built on the shortest hill around Jerusalem—it is immediately surrounded by higher hills—cannot be missed while reading about the plans of the Babel in Genesis 11. Unlike wedding rings, graduation gowns, and mortgage signings, biblical ceremonies do not appear to be mere social constructions of ritual, but embedded in the structure of the cosmos itself as it would have appeared to the ancients and moderns until recently. Parry gets at this where he discusses the role of Eden in the tabernacle/temple, among other places.

I remember hearing a Templeton lecture by a renowned American Roman Catholic biologist (i.e., he had appeared on The Colbert Report) who claimed rather easily that if we could “rewind the tape” on evolution, we might have come up with squid-headed bi-pods running the planet instead of humans (or something like that). When I pushed on that point, asking if “Jesus” would have been a squid-headed bi-pod, he doubled down on his claim, saying, “Of course.” In this move, he is taking the accidental accommodation approach to theology from the ground up. The Son can pour himself into whatever form creation happens to take because creation is (almost entirely) accidental to God’s purposes.

What if creation itself is The Accommodation, imbued with everything that will make the history of humanity physically, and hence, conceptually coherent at various stages of human exploration? What if ancient understandings of wind and water offered them sufficient analogues for their conceptual world, and it had to be so in every running of the tape of history? In other words, their concepts of the cosmos couldn’t have been otherwise given the state of God’s work in the world and human exploration. If that is the case, then what the biblical authors thought about their cosmography matters. It does not matter so much as to how well their ancient view comports with modern scientific view, but that it comports to reality as they experienced it.

The history of science warns us that our current views will inevitably become quaint and ancient as well. Hence, our present understanding of science cannot the norming norm, a point that Parry appears to lose sight of at spots in the book. Rather, what matters is how rigidly the biblical authors believed that they were conveying the nature of reality to current and future audiences.

This whole rant sprung from the analogy of natural languages. Language is now believed to be contingent on local terrain for its use of vowels, melody, and hardness of consonants.[3] The “acoustic adaptation” of languages to local environs, if correct, either roots God’s language itself in the ground or makes God himself the linguistic accommodationist. I think Parry (and I) would prefer the accommodation view, but the question then becomes: how much accommodation and how much providence? Or, how do accommodation and providence co-vary here? It is now obvious that I am leaning toward created accommodation over accidental accommodation.

The other analogy I want to posit is that of the uniqueness of Hebrew ethics. It has been a matter of some debate as to how differentiated Hebrew ethical schemes were among their peer cultures in the ancient Near East (ANE). It’s safe to say that the ethics of Torah were distinct in modest ways, at the very least, and perhaps more radically pronounced on some topics. In his forthcoming book, Jeremiah Unterman explores discrete sectors of ethical thinking in the Hebrew Bible that we take for granted (even supposing they are products of Western thought!), ethical thinking that stood in stark contrast to other cultures in the ANE.[4]

The treatment of foreigners and persons on the fringe is one way in which the Hebrew Bible contrasts with its neighbors. Whether these ethical practices of hospitality to émigré were regularly practiced in Israelite society or not (and the biblical texts seem to suggest not), they were a standard that the prophets and later leaders appealed to in order for Israel to live long in the land of Canaan (e.g., Neh 5). Repentance is another category that Unterman explores deftly. He notes that if one has capricious gods who act foolishly and unpredictably, as did the Babylonian pantheon, how would one ever know when they’ve violated some moral order for which they need to repent? Repentance entails a concept of divine stability, which was a rare cultic notion in the ANE.

I raise these examples to say that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament offer critiques and a distinct way of thinking/acting in relation to the human cosmos that is ritualized into Israel through their sacramental theology. Yet, Parry seems to suppose (and maybe I missed his cues here) that the ancient Hebrews were the kind of folk who fall in line with whatever cosmologies du jour surrounded them. They certainly have no qualms with following a distinct ethical philosophy. Yet, when it comes to the material cosmos, they are conceptually conformist? I suspect that Parry would want the similarities with other cultures to entail some sort of implicit critique as well. I would like to hear more on this.

Third, a view of accidental accommodation through creation presupposes something that will pose a problem for some. It seems to suggest that ancient life, cultic structure, and theology derives entirely from grounded concepts and lacks an account of modification. Regarding what I am calling “grounded God-talk,” Parry says:

Now, of course, we still retain this language of the sun rising and setting and have no trouble using it in everyday conversation. We are simply speaking about how things look from where we are standing. . . . Biblical authors too were simply talking about how the world appeared to them from observation. (22)

Like the biblical authors, today’s theology must deal with the world as it appears to us. However, our view of the cosmos is not stable either. We tend to think of our assumptions about the cosmos as transitory, ready to be usurped by revolutions in science. We have good reasons for such tendentiousness. Like the Ptolemaic, Copernican, Galileon, Newtonian, and Einsteinian descriptions of the physical world, we assume that the cosmos will eventually appear different to future generations because of new and more powerful explanations provided by the scientific enterprise.

In this sense, I would like to pull Parry and the rest of us down between today’s ground-eye view and the ancient one. Did the biblical authors believe that they were describing the world (final cosmography), or the world as it appeared to them (tentative cosmography)? This seems like a potential pitfall in our thinking about what the biblical authors thought they were doing. Of course, this is a larger task than called for by the thesis of The Biblical Cosmos, but I would certainly like to hear Parry’s understanding of this.

Do the biblical authors offer signs that evince a transitory understanding of reality (i.e., tentative cosmography)? For instance, would the authors of Genesis or Job affirm, “and that’s how the world is,” or, “that’s how it seems to be, to the best of our understanding”? If yes to the latter, then Parry’s goal appears to be mutually aligned with the biblical rhetoric under what he calls “A Step in the Right Direction” (166). If no, then it seems we have a problem in the nature of revelation. Let’s assume for the final point of this response that the biblical authors think that their view is the stable and correct grasp of reality (final cosmography), though I have intuitions otherwise.

Fourth, and stemming from the problem of accidental accommodation, what about the counter-cultural idea of the heaven-earth nexus found in the Hebrew Bible? By this, I mean that Eden was a union of the heavens and earth split in Genesis 3, mended in the tabernacle/temple, expanded through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and awaiting full reunion in the eschaton. But the fact that a nexus between the heavens and earth occurs at all is contentious among their peers, especially if the goal is reunion and restoration of the heavens and earth.

Specifically, the heaven-earth nexus identifies a crucial example of God’s identity being bound in his physical location above humanity (i.e., in the heavens/sky) and his repeated actions to come from the heavens above in order to act on earth below.

The book of Daniel depicts the radical nature of that nexus in the battle between the wise men of Babylon and Daniel. When Nebuchadnezzar demands revelation of his dream, the magicians claim with partial correctness, “The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh [i.e., in the heavens]” (Dan 2:11). When Daniel comes into the story to save them all from certain death, he affirms their view of the source of such knowledge, but denies the strict separation of the heavens and earth, the gods and humans:

No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. (Dan 2:27–28)

In Genesis, YHWH descends to Babel to see the building project. Jacob first sees the stairway connecting the heavens and earth with YHWH at the top and messengers going up and down between the realms. In Exodus, YHWH descends upon Mount Sinai. He descends on the tabernacle, his throne room being the holy of holies. In Numbers, YHWH descends onto Miriam and Aaron to chastise them for their rebellion. In Kings, the fire of YHWH falls upon the offering of Elijah and not the prophets of Ba’al. And in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit falls upon Mary “from the Most High,” a regularly used title for God from the Hebrew Bible. God’s voice descends from the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, and so on.

This regular insistence of YHWH to reveal a connection between these two realms is bizarre in its ANE context. After flying in an airplane as a child, I learned that “the heavens” of Scripture are not the skies of airliners. In this sense, we can agree plainly with Parry where he says, “It is simply not possible for a modern Christian, even a fundamentalist, to believe the cosmos to have the exact physical structure that biblical authors believed it to have” (165). Hence, he claims that we cannot inhabit the biblical world, but he says that we can visit as tourists.

Returning to this matter of the heavens, now that I know the sky does not contain YHWH’s heavens, how is the term “heaven” meaningful? Until recently in human history, the skies were an inaccessible place for humans. God is up there, and for Israel’s sake, he comes down here. If God accommodates the accident of ground-bound Israel by coming down, then he is neither necessarily or ontologically the “Most High” (עליון). Rather, YHWH is only accidentally the “Most High” in because of the way creation turned out and God’s desire to accommodate us. But does God’s ontological Most-Highness, as accidental accommodation, do any work for us today other than to appreciate God’s general willingness to accommodate?

Instead of accidental accommodation and the problems that it entails, what if created accommodation was primarily the construct for understanding God-human relations. In this sense, humans are not created finite and ground-bound as opposed to the infinite and everywhere God. Rather, the man was intentionally created from the ground—the Dirtling—which puts him in a particular spatial relation with the hills and the sky. The human need for oxygen puts them in particular relation to clean air, vegetation, and water. This matrix of physical and social relations also yields analogical schemes with which we can conceptualize God-human relations. In this creationally intentional view, God reveals to humans through divinely orchestrated natural means. However, this revelation is framed and circumscribed by his unnatural descents from the heavens.

Must God descend? Yes, because God created humans with a heavenward orientation toward the skies, which offers the orientation through which he will come down. Until we embed our infants with jetpacks through which they phenomenologically experience the heavens as normative, God’s Most-Highness remains a creationally constructed and correct understanding for us moderns today. It’s not accidental or merely accommodated. Indeed, accommodation may be the wrong term for what I’m describing, though I’m sympathetic to what the term is trying to do.

Along with the ancients, our current cosmography might be correct insofar as it shows deference to our being human and the natural world qua created, even creation in need of restoration. Our theology was created to be down here on earth—traversing.

[1] Final Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Untenable]: God is just using the cosmos as he finds it, but then Israelite understanding could equal or trump God’s understanding.

Final Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Untenable]: Our understanding of creation has changed and is now at odds with Final Cosmography.

Tentative Cosmography + Accidental Accommodation [Tenable]: Could be seen as out of sorts with the biblical depiction of God.

Tentative Cosmography + Created Accommodation [Acceptable]: Allows for modification of cosmography and appreciates the ancient view for it’s necessary place in Israel’s intellectual history.

[2] Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1 61.

[3] Emily Underwood, “Human Language May Be Shaped by Climate and Terrain,” Science, November 4, 2015, http://news.sciencemag.org/2015/11/human-language-may-be-shaped-climate-and-terrain.

[4] Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (Lincoln, NE: Jewish Publication Society / University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

A Biblical Nota Bene on Philosophical Inquiry

The question of the Bible’s own philosophical understanding has been revived in recent works by philosophically savvy biblical scholars and biblically savvy philosophers.[1] A new program unit—Hebrew Bible and Philosophy—has been created within the Society of Biblical Literature, dedicated to exploring specifically philosophical topics in the Hebrew Scriptures. Although such topics have always been present in Jewish and Christian scholarship (e.g., theodicy in Job, epistemology in Proverbs, metaphysics in Genesis, etc.), the question of the Christian philosopher’s position in reference to Scripture must be defined. More specifically, what makes Christian philosophy Christian, and not merely theist?

Briefly, I will proffer that the Christian Scriptures portray proper thinking that avoids error—exploring the nature of things as such—as an activity beginning in submission to the particular embodied practices of Christianity. The biblically prescribed practices then foster the ability to discern general patterns in reality. However, Scripture describes this pursuit as an ability to see the reasonable nature of things as such. And, this ability derives from lived practices. Just as we can only grasp the reasonableness of basic mathematics after repeated embodied practice with the concepts (e.g., working out problem sets over and over under the tutelage of an instructor or book), the Scriptures depict the philosophical task as one arising out of guided practice. This practice initially happens under the prophet’s authority (e.g., fasting, praying, festivals, civic responsibilities, sacrificial hospitality, etc.) and later through the guidance of Scripture (e.g., the rediscovered practice of Sukkot through Nehemiah’s public reading of Torah, Passover in the Gospels, etc.). Saying that knowing evinces an ability, a skill honed by practice, collapses the standard trichotomy—knowing that, knowing how, and knowing who—where knowing how appears requisite for knowing that.

Hence, defining “Christian philosophy” is actually clarifying a biblical epistemology: How can we arrive at a confident understanding of the nature of things as such, and in a way that reflects our Christianity? In the last century, we have come to think about philosophy as operating either in the specific topographies of lived life (the Continental tradition) or the general claims about the nature of reality (the Analytic tradition). As part of a larger multi-volume research project on biblical epistemology, I hope to show at a minimum that Scripture reiterates two claims throughout: 1) the people of God must be grounded in specific narratives and practices, and 2) that grounding creates the ability to discern the general nature of things. When Christians embody that submissive process under the Scripture’s guidance, the fruit of the process is called “wisdom” (LXX: σοφια), philosophy’s traditional prize.

Reason Grounded in History and Practice

First, biblical inquiry is portrayed as the ability of Israel to discern a novel instance of a learned pattern because she is grounded in a particular history. How is she grounded? (Consider the authentication of the prophets, including Jesus.) If the Israelites needed to be confident of anything in the Old or New Testaments, it was their ability to distinguish orthodox from unorthodox prophetic instruction. It was literally a vital epistemic skill—distinguishing long life from cannibalistic death and blessing from curse (cf. Deut 28:1–68; 30:15–20).

Notably, prophets are not identified in Deuteronomy as true or false, in and of themselves. Instead, Deuteronomy 13 and 18 warn Israelites that authenticated prophets will be sent to test them (Deut 13:1–3). Test them concerning what? Many prophets will be authenticated through extraordinary means, but Israelites must be able to discern when an authenticated prophet speaks truly according to the Torah of Moses. In other words, prophets cannot be discerned by their ability to enact signs and wonders, but by the people’s savvy in evaluating the prophet’s instruction according to the particular historical instruction found only by practicing and reflecting on the Torah of Moses. How do they develop this savvy according to Deuteronomy? By keeping the Torah, its rites and ethical practices of hospitality, justice, sacrifice, and more.

Jesus himself appears ever aware of this necessity to practice and reflect, consistently quoting and alluding to the Torah as the prescriptive authority to which he himself submits: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39), “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (cf. Lev 19:17; Matt 5:21–22). Jesus grounds his teaching in the particular history of Israel and Moses’ teaching: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (Torah) or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17-18). Indeed, this is exactly why Luke praised the Berean Jews in the book of Acts (17:10­–11): the Bereans inspected Paul’s teaching against the Hebrew Scriptures.

In those Deuteronomic commands about future prophets, Moses circumscribes the authority of all future prophets to his own teaching. Of equal import, his teaching acts as the authority who guides Israel to discern such things in the future through their reflection upon and practice of Torah. Reasoning, then, is not grounded in considering a rule or definition for who is and who is not a prophet. Rather, the history of Israel, as captured by and lived through the Torah, funds the reasonableness of a future prophet’s teaching. In short, the Israelites are not left with a categorical description of prophets as such, for no definition could guide them sufficiently. Israel does possess, however, a sufficient description of prophets who should be heeded. Again, the savvy to discern whom should be heeded requires the authoritative guidance of Moses’ instruction and the lived reality of Torah participation. Luke reports that a Torah life—animal sacrifice, vegetal sacrifice, festivals, justice to the marginalized, cleanliness, etc.—enables Jesus’ own growth in wisdom (Luke 2:46–47, 52). Luke also later depicts Torah participation as evincing Paul’s commitment to the plan of God for the sake of the Jerusalemite elders in his final days as a free man (Acts 21:21–26).

Second, Moses’ guidance is exactly what reveals the general nature of the patterns seen when individual instances are construed together. While much of current epistemological discussion still centers on knowing propositions (e.g., “knowing that ‘H20 becomes solid at 32º Fahrenheit.’”), the Hebrew Scriptures command the celebration of festivals for epistemological reasons. Biblical texts even note that this knowledge cannot be known as a stated fact about the world. For instance, Moses instructs Israel concerning the ritualized practice of Sabbath: “Nevertheless, you must keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout the ages, that you may know (לידע) that I YHWH have sanctified you” (Exod 31:13). We do not need a detailed account of either Sabbath or sanctification in order to see that the phrase “that you may know” (לידע) is predicated on Sabbath-keeping.[2]

Even more pointedly, Leviticus indicates that Israel should keep the practice of sleeping in booths during Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) “in order that the generations may know (למענ תדע) that I made the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 23:43). Deuteronomy reinforces the epistemological thrust by difference, emphasizing that Sukkot is for Israel’s children “who have not known …” (Deut 31:13).

The example of Sukkot broaches a fundamental question about limiting ourselves to a fact-centered view of inquiry in the biblical literature: If Israel was meant to know facts—consecration by God, sanctification, or that Israel once lived in booths—then why perform the prescribed actions of Sabbath rest or booth-living? Stated differently, if these are mere facts to be known, why cannot the Israelites verbally pass along the facts? The ability to pass along such knowledge is especially crucial considering that this is not peripheral information, rather vital instruction in order to live long in the land without being ejected or destroyed!

One plausible suggestion is that YHWH intends Israel to know something about the fact that YHWH has consecrated her. There is some way in which Israel needs to discern this truth beyond mere recognition, some insight to be gained only by performing the festivals and Sabbaths. By doing these things, they will see Israel’s history—the same set of facts as before their festival participation—differently. In the same way, I see the night sky differently than the astronomer sees it. Her vision of the sky is skilled in a way that mine is not. The difference in our seeing cannot be merely attributed to a disparate distribution of the “the facts.” Clearly, the divergence in our visions of the same night sky stems from her being skilled, ensconced in the traditions and ritualized observations of the sky under the guidance of an expert astronomer over time—a lived tradition that I have not experienced. Therefore, I do not see what the astronomer sees—though we are looking at the same sky!—and no conglomeration of her “facts” or a Wikipedia entry can bridge that epistemic chasm.

In brief, the festival rites appear to presume that mere knowledge of the fact is insufficient. Similar to Paul Moser’s claims in his recent “Christ-Shaped Philosophy” essay—“Without this experience, one will have a hard time adequately understanding the Good News of God in Christ”—adequate knowing is bridged by experience.[3] However, pushing beyond the broad category of individual experience, the knowledge desired by YHWH and honed by Sukkot participation is the kind that requires particular embodied participation in community in order to see the history of Israel in the correct light. Merely knowing that Israel was made to live in booths as an individual does not bridge the gap between what Israel now knows and what her generations need to know—the significance of this history.

Discerning the General Nature of Things

An episode from the Hebrew Bible will be instructive in developing the view that not all acts of knowing are of the same quality. In the book of Judges, God tests Israel and Israelites test God in order to know some transcendent attributes about each other. Judges states that God “might test (לנסות)” Israel because they did not know the wars of prior generations (Judg 3:1–2). The purpose of the test is stated unambiguously, “to know whether they would listen to the commandments …” (Judg 3:4). The text portrays God as needing to recognize something about Israel that would be foundational for discerning what kind of people they were—dispositionally speaking. God takes the position of the pedagogue who subjects his pupils to examination in order to recognize patterns in their behavior (e.g., are they the kind of people who will generally trust Moses’ teaching because of their parents’ instruction and their life of Torah practice?). By this test, God moves their invisible and internal dispositions into the visible realm “in order to know” (Judg 3:4). If one follows the story of Judges, they did not score well on the whole of this test.

These divine tests are not unique to Judges. We see the same epistemological goal stated in the Akedah—the binding of Isaac. Genesis 22 opens by telling us: “After these things it happened that God put Abraham to the test (נסה)” (Gen 22:1). When Abraham prepared to kill Isaac, the angel of YHWH announced that recognition was achieved: “Do not raise your hand against the boy … for now I know that you fear God” (Gen 22:12). The motives are patent: God needed to recognize a general attribute about Abraham—his fear of YHWH—and it required a ritualized human sacrifice in order for God to know. Without making any claims about the actual extent of God’s knowledge, we can see that this is how the Hebrew authors unashamedly portray YHWH’s epistemic process to the reader. Moreover, the employment of ritual to evince knowing does not reside only in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the New Testament, Jesus reifies the role of Israelite prophets by acting as an authoritative guide for his disciples. Unlike “those outside,” Jesus starkly states that the disciples are meant to discern “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:10–12). Whatever this mystery is, it certainly is not a discrete item or event. In other words, the mystery is an ability to apprehend all of the particular historical events of Jesus’ ministry and the teaching of Moses into an intelligible pattern called the “kingdom of God.” Again, we do not need to examine the content of this mystery. Rather, as we follow the disciples in their perpetual failures to grasp it, we see that Jesus is guiding the disciples through various events requiring their participation. These actions mean to dispose them to discern the nature of this mystery being revealed. In short, there is something that coheres the acts of feeding the thousands, going out to the Gentiles, and the crucifixion of Jesus into the more general nature of the kingdom of God that can only be found out by doing.[4]

In these instances, a general understanding about the nature of the kingdom of God as such derives from historical and punctuated instances of testing. Just as the scientist generalizes inductively from observable instances to transcendent constructs—and then to nomological theory—Scripture’s characters are portrayed as moving along a similar trajectory. Moreover, reasoning about the nature of abstract notions such as “what is a prophet,” “what is truth,” or “what is trust” as such appears distant from the epistemic goals of the biblical authors. The most easily discerned and repeated employed epistemology in Scripture moves from an authoritatively guided and interpreted experience to understanding the general nature of various relationships.

The above passages are meant to demonstrate the variegated use of ritual and action for epistemic purposes in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. I could also mention other embodied historical encounters for the sake of knowledge, such as Passover or the Lord’s Supper. However, these will have to suffice as examples meant to demand further investigation.

Conclusions

Given the above, what delineates a Christian approach to philosophy from theistic Anglo-American approach? Again, biblical inquiry is portrayed as the ability to discern novel instances of patterns learned because one is grounded in the particular history of Israel and the all-of-life practices of the Torah—later revised in the New Testament practices. While I largely agree with what Paul Moser has constructed in “Christ-Shaped Philosophy”—that real encounters with God by His Spirit shape us for the task of philosophy—I must push further toward a canon-wide development of what that formation looks like.[5] The nature of that Christ-shaping is not always, or even necessarily, inward to outward. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, outward practices prescribed by the prophets shape the inward epistemic disposition of Israel and the earliest Jesus followers. Or, some might argue, that outward-inward dualism offers convention more than realism in biblical description, avoiding a works/grace controversy.

The inward-to-outward transformation may precariously presume what Catherine Bell labels the “thinking-acting dichotomy,” which supposes that internal thinking is prior to and expressed through external actions.[6] Under this account, actions merely symbolically express thoughts. However, I contend that the Scriptures are just as often interested in the opposite: that our “outward” habits and rituals shape our “inward” thinking and even our ability to reason. Basically, we need a philosophical account of our habit-shaped thinking, which Jesus and Paul could recognize and endorse. It must also be robust enough to explain the body’s biblical role in inquiry: habit helping to shape reason.

Minimally, the biblical logic on this question requires inquiry to be rooted in the prescribed teaching and practices from Moses to Jesus. In sum, Christian philosophers are Christian precisely because they are grounded not in abstract inquiry, but in a particular historical narrative in which current participation is still required. When performed within a local reflecting Christian community, these prescribed practices dispose us to discern patterns, trajectories, and proliferating implications. In our attempts to grasp such transcendent qualities of reality, we use philosophical inquiry heuristically, to captivate and cogitate that which we have discerned. I would like to suggest that the biblical account, on the whole, advocates philosophical inquiry when pursued within a practicing, and therefore reasoning, Christian community.

A Note on Method

No doubt, some will question my claims about philosophical systems native to Scripture. As I recently read, though it’s not a rare sentiment amongst philosophers and biblical scholars alike:

The Bible is not a philosophical text; its language does not point unambiguously to any philosophical position. … I do not think it can fruitfully be mined for philosophical theories.[7]

Aside from the problems associated with discussing “the Bible” as if it were a monolithic text, the above philosopher seems to focus on seemingly insurmountable problems stemming from the ambiguity and plurality of depictions we find as we encounter the biblical texts. However, this sentiment seems to miss the fact that this is precisely what biblical scholars do: try to understand the unambiguous and ambiguous points made by the many and ancient authors of Scripture. That is why biblical scholars work with the ancient languages, literary genres, social conventions, archaeological findings, and more: in order to disambiguate what the biblical authors were saying through the various tongues, cultures, and conventions that shifted throughout the centuries of its writing and compilation. Though I understand the basic point, it only points to the need for scholarship to translate their findings into language and concepts accessible to philosophers.

Because this task is necessarily difficult and appears messy, analytic philosophers might deem it as too messy to recover the philosophical positions of those ancient authors—metaphysical and epistemological presumptions that those authors certainly held and critically analyzed. Even Jaco Gericke, who promotes the scholarship of understanding the philosophical ideas of the biblical authors, thinks it best to give up on finding a coherent philosophical system that spans the biblical texts: “We simply need to exchange unified Christian dogmatic [philosophical] systems for complex and chaotic Yahwistic biblical ones.”[8]

Methodological rigor and protocol in biblical scholarship intend to bring ancient ideas to modern clarity. However, Christians bear the burden of a Divine authorship that spans across these variegated texts and unites them. The author of Hebrews says it best in the opening sentence: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke …” (Heb 1:1). Though not free from reasonable scrutiny, biblical scholarship provides methods for seeing the authorship of God—one coherent system of thought—spanning across the ages, the prophets, the language, and the plurality of cultures involved in the production of our canon. Although sometimes disputed, this is the task of biblical theology.

This is all to say: The biblical passages that I explored above were not cherry-picked, but resultant of a particular literary-linguistic methodology. This method highlights passages where a theme (e.g., human reason) is clearly present in a passage (both linguistically and conceptually), relevant within the passage (i.e., not tangential), and the author persistently develops that theme. For those interested, I briefly discuss this methodology, what Gericke is now calling “philosophical criticism as a form of biblical criticism,” in Biblical Knowing.[9]

            [1] E.g., Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Jaco Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012); Dru Johnson, Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade Books, 2013); Ryan O’Dowd, The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom in Literature. Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments Band 225 (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009); Mary Healy and Robin Parry, eds., The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007); Michael Carasik, Theologies of the Mind in Biblical Israel (Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2005).

            [2] While some will speculate as to what Israel knew by means of Sabbath-keeping (e.g., Durham), Childs observes that in the Tanakh as a canon, “a variety of different reasons were added [to Sabbath-keeping], but no one ever became fully normative, as the continual fluidity demonstrates.” Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus. The Old Testament Library (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1974), 415. For a theologically interpreted account of knowledge brought about by Sabbath-keeping, see John I. Durham, Exodus. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 3 (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987), 412–13.

            [3] Paul Moser, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United,” http://www.epsociety.org/userfiles/art-Moser%20(Christ-Shaped%20Philosophy).pdf (accessed July 3, 2014), 4.

            [4] I argue generally for this epistemological motif in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in Biblical Knowing: A Scriptural Epistemology of Error (Eugene, Oreg.: Cascade, 2013), 97–112. I provide a detailed lexical and conceptual Markan account of this argument in a forthcoming monograph: Biblical Theology and Epistemology: From the Pentateuch to Mark’s Gospel. Theology and Philosophy Series (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2016).

            [5] Moser, “Christ-Shaped Philosophy,” 9.

            [6] Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 19–29.

            [7] Michael L. Peterson & Raymond J. VanArragon, eds., Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 336.

            [8] Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 227.

            [9] Johnson, Biblical Knowing, xv–xxi, 1–21. I have a fuller account of this methodology in a forthcoming monograph titled Biblical Theology and Epistemology. Also, Jaco Gericke’s proposal for a new field called “Philosophical Criticism” of the Hebrew Bible shares some methodological affinity to what I proposed in Biblical Knowing. Gericke, The Hebrew Bible and Philosophy of Religion, 199–240.

 

(This essay first appeared on epsociety.org)

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